Writer Sharanya Manivannan’s relationship with Chennai is complicated. She was born in Chennai (her mother flew to Chennai 9 months pregnant) to a Sri Lankan mother and an Indian father, both of whom lived in Sri Lanka — “it’s one of those weird things where I wound up being born here even though they didn’t live here”, she says. Even though it was by chance that Manivannan was born here, she came back to live in Chennai as an adult, clearly influencing her and the stories in her new book, The High Priestess Never Marries.
Many of the women in Manivannan’s short stories are lonely, or aware that loneliness is around the corner, which is perhaps the same thing. But none of Manivannan’s women demand your pity or sorrow: they are magical, powerful, in control even when they’re not. Part of this book’s charm is the way she’s able to describe singlehood and solitude simply as is, with none of the notes of explicit sorrow they’re usually accompanied by.
We spoke to Sharanya Manivannan about her relationship with Chennai, which the book is a bittersweet ode to, the performance of courtship, her thoughts on being single and the small or big acts of rebellion that many women perform when it comes to staying single.
Edited excerpts from the interview:
Is singlehood difficult?
It’s less to do with being single than it has to do with being a woman. It rings true for the vast majority of women and it cuts across class. We all have our different styles of negotiation, many of which actually play right into the existing hegemony, and those are problematic in themselves. But there is a common thread: deep misogyny.
Coming from the fact of just being here, I decided to look at resistance and being single, staying single. Especially, as I got deeper into my 20s, it became harder to resist. At that time, I also began to understand that even those smaller acts of resistance or rebellion are very much within the paradigm; even these smaller acts of rebellion that many younger women perform are very much part of what is accepted in society. The threshold for so many people is marriage. For that reason in particular, I began to think more and more about the institution, and resisting from within it and outside it.
Being single can be a political act in the way that anything one does with a sense of awareness can be a political act. Sometimes it’s not a choice, its really just your circumstances, but you need to stay aware of it, of the larger picture, the socio-political roles that go into it, the historical elements, possibly, and see it in a less subjective way.
So it was a deliberate choice to write many of these stories in first person. Many of the protagonists in the stories are quite lonely. The first person narrator is unknowingly kind to herself, because she doesn’t know any other way to see. And I wanted for that kindness to be in the book. When you teach yourself to live alone, when you teach yourself solitude, you have to be extremely kind to yourself.
You’ve lived all over the world, from Chennai and Sri Lanka to Malaysia. Do you think singlehood is perceived differently in different countries?
There’s a definite difference in other places. I think the main point of difference is the acceptance of dating as not necessarily a means to an end. In Chennai, it’s very different: you date on a certain trajectory, and it’s not really dating. There’s a sort of performance of dating, and courtship, which only speak to a kind of middle class aspirations to appear liberal and independent, rather than actually taking the risk of being liberal or independent, which would immediately put you apart from most of society.
What I’ve noticed, especially in a hegemonic city like Madras, is the arranged cum love marriage [laughs]. Somebody is already vetted by the family, based on their caste, religion, class… and at the back of your head, you know that this is supposed to lead to marriage. So there’s a performance of dating, there are pictures on social media. Love has become a status symbol, therefore the pretence itself has also become that.
But there’s another side to this whole arranged marriage thing. I call it a ‘fire trampoline’. You can do whatever the hell you want — you can set a person’s house on fire and then you just jump off, and you can always look up and say, I always told you I’d marry a woman of my parents’ choice. Men and women do this : it’s a standard operating procedure in cities like this. I noticed it a lot as a person who didn’t have that scaffolding to fall back on. All of the choices I’ve made, whether it’s been to walk away, or accept the rejection, or the choice to pursue something has always been because I didn’t have that scaffolding of an arranged marriage to fall back on. I come from a different kind of family: I wouldn’t call it progressive, I’d call it dysfunctional. But I never had that scaffolding.
And if, after all your relationships, your flings and pretensions, you still end up marrying someone from your caste, it says a lot about how problematic the institution of marriage is.
Divorce can also be a form of resistance. The ways in which divorced women are treated is significant, and in many ways they’re treated quite similarly to women who haven’t married at all. The woman is an object of suspicion, unless she has the vouching of the family she belongs to. It’s a very telling thing about what Chennai society is like.
At 31 years old in Chennai, I sometimes feel I’m still not always treated like an adult! The perfect example would be when I try to get visas to go abroad, and I’d be asked point blank by travel agents for written permission from my father. I’d say these are my bank statements, my letter of invitation, I’m an adult travelling by myself, so why would I need my father’s permission. And they’d just say it’s required. It all comes down to who you “belong to”; the notion that you might belong to yourself is unimaginable. It seems like it’s only imaginable in cases of dire tragedy.
I keep saying Chennai because it’s the space I’m familiar with, but I’m perfectly aware that this is the case in so many places also abroad. But just because it isn’t different doesn’t mean you shouldn’t question it. One of the reasons why moving here was so difficult for me was because I had a lot of independence growing up.
What does the idea of solitude mean to you?
Solitude has many aspects to it. The first thing is the need to stop making the romantic or marital relationship the main one. Which is why the protagonist in the last story talks about how her friends are her significant others. Why should only one kind of relationship be the most vital? There are so many kinds of relationships you can have, as you pursue what society thinks of as solitude. But before that, you need to sit with yourself and hone that relationship first.
That for me is the deeper understanding of what solitude means: it’s not about being lonely and alone, although one is at many points in life, but solitude as a way of living. Not detaching completely from society or any of those dramatic things; you can be very much within a certain society and still remain ontologically on the periphery.
What do you see marriage as?
Personally, I’ve always had some kind of allergy towards marriage. Even when I was a kid, something about it, the way I saw it transform women, particularly in Tamil cinema, intuitively made me understand that it was not good for women.
I would ask people to look back at the function of marriage; what it was created to consolidate: finances, property, kingdoms and dynasties. Marriage had a very particular function of keeping control and women invariably became property. Which is why the word ‘husband’ has its roots in farming. The husband of the farm means that the woman is part of the farm, part of his property, which is why we have the word animal husbandry. So it’s not just in Indian society that marriage is less about love and more a straightforward contract.
But I really want to emphasise that this is not an absolute: there are many different kinds of marital systems. For instance, my maternal family comes from the east of Sri Lanka, where they practice the matrilineal and matrilocal system. So when a man and a woman got married, the man would move into her household and all the deeds, the inheritances, the ancestral temple were passed on from mother to daughter. These kinds of narratives should be talked about more. People say, “Oh in the glorious Sangam age, men and women were equal!” Why do we think of that as an ideal but not strive to live like that?
You’ve spoken of the difference of being partnered and single. How do you see singlehood?
The way I see singlehood has changed over time. I think this should be true of anybody who is following some personal growth trajectory. When I was in my early twenties, I enjoyed it and thought it was fun! I thought I’m just not going to be tied into this system, but at the same time, I think my resistance of the system was not as complete as I wanted it to be. I was still falling into the patterns which the system doesn’t preclude even if you are not married. And it changed, because I decided to fully commit to not being committed [laughs]. I decided to fully commit to myself.
You don’t just meander and kind of say I’m in this stream but I’m not in the flow of it. You make active decisions to be better and kinder to yourself and more respectful. And what that means in real terms, you accept. For instance, you may go long periods without a partner, and that’s okay. Because why should the natural state of an adult be partnership? The feeling of being inadequate is something one needs to leave behind early on in this journey. You have the realisation that you’re not inadequate because you’re not partnered: in many ways you’re much more capable. So you build things for yourself in a way that you may not be able to if you have a partner.
Which is not to say that having a partner is bad. It’s not a militant, aggressive, anti-partnership stance in any way; it’s just knowing that if you cannot conform enough to have a partnership at this point in time in this particular place, that’s okay. It doesn’t preclude the idea that you might someday be partnered, and that you may choose that later down the line.
For a lot of women, there’s a point where they make that choice to enter the system, and it’s usually in their mid-to-late twenties. The fear of being ‘unpartnered’, the sense you’re given that there’s something wrong with you because nobody “chose” you; it just becomes too great, and you decide to accept whoever chooses you without questioning if you have reciprocated that choice, or considering whether that person made the choice out of their own volition, or whether they too did it out of fear or pressure.
Does singlehood play out differently for men and women?
In a heterosexual context, there’s definitely a big difference. Men are considered attractive, charismatic, interesting and unusual if they remain single in their 30s and 40s, and they appear much more attractive to younger women. Men are treated as free, whereas women become fortresses. You just have to be stronger and stronger as a solitary object in order to keep going, and to remain true to yourself, despite the continuous daily friction of being single and being seen with a certain slant.
And that slant also changes a lot, depending on who you are, what you do, what you look like, what your family is like, where you live, how you live, how you dress… But no matter what that slant looks like, you’re battling the daily friction of it.
And in terms of the relationships, there are all kinds of messy and strange dynamics, many of which are a result of patriarchal conditioning. That’s one of the reasons why it’s difficult for a woman, who is on her own path to find partnership, because she keeps butting up against that conditioning, whether it’s in another person or herself. So she strives to find someone who has been as true to their own path as she has been to hers, and the convergence of paths is not something predictable. It’s not your standard trajectory at all.
When you’re forging your own path, you don’t know if it will intersect with the trajectory of someone else’s.